"The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.
But it isn't the monster Conor's been expecting. He's been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he's had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming...
This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.
It wants the truth." (from Goodreads)
The subject: the struggles of a boy whose mother has cancer. Don't kid yourself — while there's a magical realism element at play here, like any terminal illness story it's a tough, depressing read. I found this book emotionally draining, so be prepared for that. (And yes, it even made me cry a little — which is saying something, because I don't cry very often at books.)
I liked that Connor wasn't ashamed of loving his mom and being close to her. He was willing to put her needs above some of his own (like his need for friendship and social interaction). It was really sweet to see their connection and the kind of pure parent-child love that exists.
The setting: I think it's kept purposely vague, to make the story more generalizable...but I'd say it's somewhere in England where they have yew trees.
Shutter speed: fairly slow, but evenly paced. There isn't much exciting plot going on here, and the content is inarguably weighty, but the simple writing style helps keep the reader from getting bogged down.
What's in the background? Amazing illustrations that really made this book special. I wasn't so enthralled with the story at certain points, but I would always be looking forward to the illustrations, because they're just fantastic. Grayscale and done in an impressionistic sort of style, they manage to be very atmospheric, striking and textured.
Zoom in on: the sub-plot about bullying. Frankly, I really didn't "get" the character of Harry and his mindset, but I thought the discussion surrounding Conor's desire to be punished and fear of being alone and invisible was very interesting. Also, I appreciated the acknowledgment of Conor's guilt over the warring desires within him; I thought this was insightful and true, and something many people experience.
An interesting sidenote: there's a fair bit of psychology in here, and something resembling cognitive retraining at the end. The monster distinguishes between the unimportance of thoughts and the importance of actions, and the idea of conflicting thoughts (which might be seen as cognitive dissonance) is also broached.
Anything out of focus? Not really. A Monster Calls accomplishes what it seems to set out to do: tell the story of a parent with cancer in a fresh way. We never find out how the magic works, but that's not really the point; the magic is more of a vehicle for Connor's psychological and emotional development. The writing style is simple, yes, but very effective and powerful. I think Patrick Ness chooses his words quite carefully, and a simple writing style really suits the subject matter.
Ready? Say... "Tissue?"
Click! 5 shooting stars. A Monster Calls is one of those books that has a "timeless classic" sort of feel to it. I can imagine this might be a book a teacher could read to their class, or a parent and child could read together. However, even though it's illustrated, it deals with some deep, heavy themes and concepts in a serious tone — giving them the respect and space they deserve — so younger kids might not fully understand or appreciate it.